The Herald of Everett, Washington
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Herald staff | needtoknow@heraldnet.com
Published: Friday, December 28, 2012, 2:17 p.m.

Among Reardon's emails, signs of obstruction

We hear that detectives from the Washington State Patrol have been nosing around for signs that Aaron Reardon somehow used his position as Snohomish County executive to keep potentially embarrassing government records from seeing the light of day.

Are there good reasons to wonder whether Reardon and some of his crew might try to hold back documents relevant to his current imbroglio? Unfortunately, yes.

It would be great to lay out the reasons for those concerns in a short, sweet Need to Know post. We can't. The proof is found sometimes in long, tangled history. It shows up in matters both simple and serious.

Detectives have interviewed folks familiar with the county's computer system. One of these people told us he spoke with detectives about county emails he says showed Reardon having regular personal contact with Tami Dutton. She's the county social worker who claims the executive used public money to bankroll their long-running affair. The patrol investigation began after Dutton brought her story to authorities.

Government cell phone bills, documenting lengthy calls between Reardon and Dutton, have been public since December.

So far, no eyebrow-raising emails between the two have surfaced among the thousands of pages of documents the executive's office kicked loose in response to law enforcement demands and public records requests.

While the level of professionalism at county offices has been much improved since Gary Haakenson came aboard as deputy executive, there's been plenty of troubling public records history under Reardon's watch. That includes our spring 2010 discovery that important notes disappeared for nearly a year while a key Reardon employee was the focus of a criminal investigation.

‘Damage Control'

The missing notes contained evidence that some powerful people hoped to engage in "damage control," keeping the man's sexual assault from being reported to law enforcement. The notes, suggesting that somebody believed Reardon's administration might go along with such a plan, somehow remained "forgotten" by top Reardon employees for months. They surfaced only after we filed close to a dozen records requests. Until then, they'd never been shared with detectives or county attorneys.

For years, getting even routine records and data out of Reardon's shop has presented a level of difficulty unique among the government agencies we cover in this state.

Attached to this post are a couple of email strings that provide glimpses into what it can be like: evasion, dissembling and plain old misdirection.

So why are we sharing them now? Because they are among thousands of emails the county provided detectives as part of their ongoing Reardon investigation.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

One of the email strings documents how longtime Reardon spokesman Christopher Schwarzen obstructed a Herald reporter's attempt to get Reardon's response to a tip about the executive apparently accepting personal gifts from a public agency.

In late 2010, we were called by people who had attended a county courthouse event to celebrate families adopting area children. Representatives from Fire District 1 were there handing out bicycle helmets to the children. Callers said Reardon left with a couple of free helmets, too.

We called and wrote Reardon, to learn if that was true. No reply. Schwarzen responded. He said he'd checked with the fire district and had been told we'd been assured no child that day was deprived of a free helmet. He expressed confusion over our interest, then flat ignored follow-up questions. Curiously, Schwarzen never acknowledged the email we now know his boss sent him (just released thanks to the patrol's investigation) in which Reardon acknowledged leaving with a couple of free bike helmets. He wrote that he planned to donate the helmets to charity, along with a bicycle his son had outgrown.

Mystery. Drama. Why?

Dazed And Confused

It's easier to understand elected officials making it tough to get at truly sensitive information, such as the notes from 2009.

Among the records the county recently provided state patrol detectives is an email string started in August 2009 by Schwarzen. The messages began the very afternoon The Herald learned that former planning director Craig Ladiser had been fired for what turned out to be a drunken, sexually motivated assault on a woman at a King County golf course in the middle of the afternoon, in front of several other people.

Ladiser had suddenly dropped from sight.

When we asked about the absence, Schwarzen sent us a misleading email that said Ladiser was away on an "unexpected family emergency." When we learned that Ladiser instead had been quietly fired, a reporter for The Herald called Schwarzen and submitted a written request for "any and all" information the county had on Ladiser's departure.

That correspondence produced a stack of records Schwarzen later acknowledged he'd assembled earlier, just in case someone asked for them.

What we didn't get were notes prepared by the county human services director. They detailed her conversation with Ladiser and a separate conversation she'd monitored, between then-deputy executive Mark Soine and the woman Ladiser assaulted.

Taken together, notes from those conversations made clear the leader of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties really wanted Ladiser to continue running the planning department. That apparently was more important than Ladiser's assault on the woman, a Master Builders employee.

Notes quoted Ladiser saying that the leader of the builders group told him he could work it all out with Reardon -- in other words, a criminal attack would be dealt with by careful application of juice, not justice.

When the truth of what happened with Ladiser came out, it initially played like some bad golfing joke. It wasn't until criminal charges were filed, months later, that some stopped laughing. Would the narrative have been different if a more complete record, including talk of a potential backroom fix for a sexual assault, had surfaced quickly?

The emails now in the hands of the State Patrol document our attempt at finding out how those troubling notes remained outside the grasp of public records requests for so long.

We asked Reardon, but never got an answer.

The lone on-the-record explanation we've received was from Schwarzen, who apologized. He said he may have been confused. He also wrote that our reporter in 2009 never sought more records after he sent the documents he prepared ahead of time.

But the newspaper, and the reporter, never waived the request for "any and all" information regarding Ladiser's firing.

Now, thanks to the investigation involving Reardon, we can see how Schwarzen actually processed that records request.

When it arrived, Schwarzen immediately sent an email: "This is following (the reporter's) phone call for information. I understand that I will need to comply with this request unless directed otherwise."

His email went to Reardon, Soine and Ladiser's boss, Brian Parry, a Reardon executive director who came to his county job from the Master Builders.

So Schwarzen wasn't confused. Unless directed otherwise.

Time Will Tell

The notes ultimately surfaced, in Soine's office, after he stepped down as deputy county executive.

They say Ladiser told Parry about what happened on the golf course. That's something Parry repeatedly has denied. If the notes are accurate, though, they show that Reardon's office did nothing about what happened to the woman on the golf course and only began investigating after she dropped off a letter asking why Ladiser was in treatment for substance abuse, instead of heading out the door to the unemployment line.

Since the state patrol investigation became public, some in Reardon's employ have made heroic efforts on behalf of government transparency. At least 10,000 emails and other documents have been screened and released since November. We expect more before the week is out.

Will we see everything the law says we should? Only time will tell.


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